March 05, 2006

Reverse Culture Shock: TV and the Media

When we moved from Paris to Seattle in November, I knew I would face reverse culture-shock, but after four months, I’ve been surprised by just what has been culturally shocking.

For example, it’s shameful, but I haven’t been writing much lately because I’ve become absorbed by TV. It is “entertaining, amusing and insulating” me, and it’s much more sophisticated here than in Europe. TiVo, HD-TV, Netflix: none of these things are part of European culture, and many of the most entertaining and popular shows on TV there are imported from the US about a year after their initial broadcast.  We used to swap DVDs of American shows with expatriates.

Now, each day when I come home from work, there is a fresh Daily Show and Colbert Report to watch on the DVR. We can’t miss an episode of Desperate Housewives or 24; as a news junky, I even record the NBC evening news and Meet the Press. Plus we want to catch up on shows that friends are talking about like Battlestar Galactica. And we’ve never even seen Lost. So many shows, so little hard disk space.

But just as Edward R. Murrow feared, while TV is entertaining, it is failing to educate. Our TV news looks childish next to the BBC. Cable news is the worst, but according to recently retired anchors Ted Koppel and Dan Rather, market forces are eating away at network journalism too, resulting in, among other problems, the closing of foreign bureaus and the loss of knowledgeable foreign correspondents.

We do have excellent alternatives to TV, like the New Yorker and NPR. And it’s certainly possible to go too far in criticizing our TV news. When a questioner asked Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond about the deleterious effects of Fox News in a Q&A session which followed his fascinating speech in Seattle’s Town Hall, Mr. Diamond pointed out that our press is extraordinary open compared to the news media in much of the world.

That’s hard to argue with, but surely we could do better. Censorship is a less serious problem for us than our vast ignorance about most of the world. According to Dan Rather, North Korean children know all sorts of facts about the Pacific Northwest. Do most Americans know more about these countries than their membership in the “Axis of Evil?”

For now, at least we can TiVo the BBC.

By Will Friedman in Commentary | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack | Email this post

October 30, 2005

Moving Back to America: Vacation Time

FlagI recently had dinner with a man who works for a major French bank. He gets eleven weeks of vacation per year—in addition to national holidays, sick days, bonus vacation days for exceeding the 35 hour workweek, etc. It’s more vacation than I would know what to do with. Eleven weeks vacation is 55 days, so he could take one day off each working week, and still have a week left over. Or he could spend August at the beach, take December off to ski, and then take two more weeklong holidays during the year.

The minimum annual vacation under France law is 25 days and the average number of total days off 39. The minimum by law in the UK is 20 days. And in general, people in Europe take off all of the days to which they are entitled.

There is no minimum in the United States. The American average is 12 vacation days, but people feel so pressured to be at the office that they take only 9 of them. As Juliet Schor points out in her excellent book The Overworked American, productivity suffers when we work without a break. Our vacations aren’t long enough to be restful, and they are often “working vacations” with the cell phone on and the email up. We go to extremes: a friend of mine postponed his honeymoon three times because of a pending deal. And the impact on family life is devastating; working parents find they don’t know their own children as well as they’d like.

Some argue that if workers were given more vacation time, the economy would be damaged. But Britain’s economy has been booming for years in spite of a reasonable vacation policy. Others raise the specter of China to justify working to exhaustion, just as people tried to scare us with Japan in the 80’s. But we won’t safeguard the American way of life by trying to out-China the Chinese. We could work 100 hour days, 365 days a year, and it wouldn’t change the fact that China has a much larger population, much lower wages, and a currency which stays low because of our huge national debt. No, to compete with China we have to develop our own competitive advantages based on high technology and innovation, and we need to return to sensible fiscal policy. But those are topics for another post.

So what is the vacation time sweet spot? Ideally, an employee feels well-rested enough to be at their most productive. That means two or three weeklong breaks during the year. We could also use some vacation time to fill in around the New Year when not much gets done at the office anyway; that’s important family time. A few more days to celebrate the religious holidays of our choice would mean a lot to many families, including mine. And it would help employees concentrate at the office if they had a couple more days to catch up on bills and to get things done around the house.

In order to meet those needs, we would need a minimum of four weeks per year, with a slightly higher average. That’s the same amount as in the UK. A little more couldn’t hurt – beyond that we’re getting into luxurious, Bush-like vacation numbers. I know that a four week minimum sounds like a lot in the US, and I don’t expect to have that much time off when I move back. But it would be sensible policy, and I’m surprised that it’s not a major political issue.

By the way, friends and readers across the political spectrum have asked me variants of the question: “if you like Europe so much, why don’t you just stay there?” That one’s easy: five years is a long time to be away from friends and family. And there are plenty of things I love about living in the States; I promise to balance things out with some posts about the advantages of living in America when I get back. Things can’t have changed that much in the last five years, right?

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October 05, 2005

More Global Warming Feedback

Ice162The New York Times recently reported on melting artic ice, which is another sign that global warming is entering a destructive feedback cycle.  Normally, the white surface of arctic ice reflects heat back into space.  However, as the ice melts, the darker water absorbs the heat, thus melting more ice and making it harder for new ice to form each season. 

The floating cap of sea ice on the Arctic Ocean shrank this summer to what is probably its smallest size in at least a century of record keeping, continuing a trend toward less summer ice, a team of climate experts reported yesterday.

That shift is hard to explain without attributing it in part to human-caused global warming, the team's members and other experts on the region said.

The change also appears to be headed toward becoming self-sustaining: the increased open water absorbs solar energy that would otherwise be reflected back into space by bright white ice, said Ted A. Scambos, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which compiled the data along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"Feedbacks in the system are starting to take hold," Dr. Scambos said.

Image is from the New York Times article.

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Avian Flu Awareness

PfawdateOver the last year and a half, there have been outbreaks in eight Asian counties of a deadly virus known as avian flu. It has resulted in the deaths of more than 100 million birds, some of which were culled in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading further. While avian flu mainly affects poultry, scientists worry that it is capable of mutating into a form that infects and spreads between humans. If this were to happen, and if it were not immediately contained, the consequences could be disastrous.

For example,

During the influenza pandemic of 1918, [another strain of flu] was estimated to have killed 1–2% of everyone who got it, half of whom were 20–40 years old and otherwise healthy. 50–100 million people died worldwide and 675,000 died in the US, at a time when the world population was a third of what it is today. It is not possible to predict what it would be like the next time.

Despite the threat, which public health experts have been warning about for years, the White House and Congressional Republicans have several times tried to cut funding for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the main US agency which would prepare for and respond to an outbreak of avian flu. (The most recent cut was proposed by House Republicans just after Katrina.)

Yesterday, the administration stumbled again, when Bush announced that he would use the army to enforce quarantine zones in the case of an outbreak. This made international news in part because the President has not educated the American public about the threat, but suddenly started talking about calling out the army.

He may have surprised people since he just learned about it himself. It seems that after a closed door briefing last week, the Administration is finally starting to wake up to the threat, reports the New York Times.

"I take this issue very seriously," Bush said [in a news conference yesterday]. "The people of the country ought to rest assured that we're doing everything we can."

But after the administration's widely criticized response to Hurricane Katrina, such assurances are no longer enough, several Democratic senators said.

"'Trust us' is not something the administration can say after Katrina," Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, said in an interview. "I don't think Congress is in a mood to trust. We want plans. We want specific goals and procedures we're going to take to prepare for this."

So far, Harkin said, the administration has provided neither, despite requests from Congress.

[Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael] Leavitt acknowledged in an interview that the United States was not prepared for a pandemic flu outbreak.

While the Administration fumbles, concerned individuals are doing what they can to educate the public. Some have created a new collaborative Web site which is designed to share information about avian flu. It’s called the Flu Wiki, and it uses the same technology as the Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclopedia that is rapidly becoming one of the best available reference works.

Flu Wiki’s creators and others are participating in Pandemic Flu Awareness Week. It’s a good time to learn about preparedness, and if you are a subject matter expert, an excellent time to contribute to this community resource. And with enough pressure, the government may come up with a plan as well.

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September 21, 2005

Global Warming Accelerates Global Warming

RitasmallGlobal warming is likely to become a political issue now that Rita has been upgraded to Category 5, because scientists say that the increasing temperature of the ocean makes hurricanes more intense.

Today, the journal Nature added to the evidence that global warming must be taken seriously with research that shows that the European heat wave of 2003—which resulted in more than 10,000 deaths in France and thousands more throughout Europe—caused vegetation to release 500 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, whereas normally plants absorb CO2.

The 2003 event shows that forests, even in temperate areas such as Europe, cannot be guaranteed to suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, says Chris Jones, who studies the carbon cycle at the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter, UK…

Such an extreme summer has never been recorded before. "This was basically unprecedented," says Andrew Friend, an author on Ciais's paper. "It shows there's a danger in assuming that climate change is only going to be gradual."

In other words, global warming accelerates global warming.

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August 05, 2005

Latte Poll Results: McCain and Rove

As scientific as Intelligent Design theory, here are the results of the two latest Latte polls:

No big surprises there. McCain recently reactivated his fundraising PAC, but he is not the cross-over candidate he was in 2000.

Many respondents to this poll voted for restraint; they only want Rove fired, not sent to the desert like our troops.  It was surprising, though, that some people thought that career CIA office Valerie Plame should suffer.  Punishing the spouses of people who challenge the government when it is covering up the truth...does any American really support that?

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July 08, 2005

Give Up Your Source, Judith Miller

I don't often take positions that liberals find controversial.  However, I'm not sure that the letter the International Herald Tribune published from me regarding the Valerie Plame scandal will prove to be popular among Latte readers.   Here's what I wrote:

In an act of political retribution, a senior White House official disclosed that Valerie Plame was an undercover intelligence agent. That is shameful.

But you take the position (June 29 Editorial, "The Supreme Court rules: Striking a blow at the free press") that reporters' access to whistle-blowers would be irrevocably curtailed if Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper were to reveal their sources in the subsequent investigation. That need not be the case.

There are very few circumstances in which speaking to a reporter is a crime. Revealing the name of an intelligence agent is one of them.

Miller and Cooper should feel free to reveal their sources in this unusual case to help the ongoing investigation. As long as the issue is narrowly circumscribed to the illegal outing of intelligence agents, as it should be, the Plame affair need not become a crisis for journalism.

I agree that the real villain here is Karl Rove, or whoever else the vengeful leaker proves to be.  I also agree that it's suspicious that Robert Novak, the one who was leaked on and then wrote about it, is not being locked up, while Judith Miller of the New York Times, who never wrote a story about the topic, is in jail.  I further agree that the prosecutor is acting bizarrely in jailing Miller, even though he says he already knows who her source is.  And I have said before that I think the Times is the world's best newspaper, and is certainly worth defending.

All that doesn't change the fact that mainstream journalists are wrong to turn the Plame affair into a test case for reporters' rights.  First Amendment Lawyer Geoffory Stone summed it up pretty well in this edition of NPR's On the Media [audio link].

If anyone can explain why illegally outing a CIA agent is not a special case, I'd love to hear about it.

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March 01, 2005

The English Speaking Peoples

Somehow, it’s all gone pear shaped, as Londoners say. While America watched the Oscars, this week Britain’s Channel 4 broadcast a four part series on American torture. Part I: a pseudo-reality show in which British men will be subjected to the techniques employed by the US government in extraterritorial detention centers. The hook: How long can they bear it, one day or two? The point: help the British public decide whether or not the practices are morally acceptable.

The description of Torture: The Guantánamo Guidebook reads,

In this powerful and shocking programme, seven volunteers – some of whom began by supporting the Guantánamo regime – agreed to submit themselves to some of the conditions and coercive methods used at Guantánamo Bay.

The producers clearly believe they know what the public’s verdict will be. UK and other reviewers have questioned the show’s format, but have taken the opportunity to lambaste the government practices they depict. More to the point is the advertisement for the show, which has been shown repeatedly after 10pm, and which says in part:

What if you had a terror suspect in your custody? ...Would you attack his religious beliefs by humiliating him with menstrual blood? ...How far would you go to get the confession you want to hear?

In another part of the series, journalist Andrew Gilligan

goes on the trail of the Special Removal Unit, a secret American kidnap team that goes around the world abducting men they suspect of having terrorist links and rendering them to countries where they will be tortured for information — a process the CIA calls extraordinary rendition.

Extraordinary rendition, DoubleSpeak for outsourcing torture to dictatorships, has been well-documented by journalists like Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Bob Herbert of The New York Times, and Michael Hirsh, Mark Hosenball, and John Barry of Newsweek. But if these stories shock and embarrassed us at home in the US, abroad they have swept away the remaining crumbs of our moral credibility.

Come to England and speak to the average bloke; America is no longer a shining light on the hill — far from it. After the willful invention of ties between Osama and Saddam, after the detention of innocent (and thus eventually released) British citizens without charge at Guantánamo Bay, after the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, and now after the breathtaking hypocrisy of the “freedom” State of the Union address, which was almost immediately clarified as business as usual by Bush senior — many Brits view America under Bush alternately as an enormous stupid beast, unaware of the carnage it causes as it blindly flails around, or a dangerous Machiavellian overlord, drunk with selfish power.

Bush’s recent European tour did little to change minds; his ‘Russian ballet’ was the dance of double standards. After raising expectations of a confrontation with the emerging dictator on Europe’s border, in the event Bush offered a half-hearted critique and a wholehearted suck-up. Putin verbally outmaneuvered Bush, because he was able to claim, as commentators have long feared, that Russia’s behavior was morally equivalent to America’s. All that is left of our bully pulpit is the bully.

What is most dismaying geopolitically is that high ranking members of Britain’s conservative Tory party, defined by their Euroskepticism since Thatcher, are for the first time asking themselves whether they feel closer to Europe than to the United States on key policy and defense issues. This could presage a fundamental transformation of the Special Relationship that has endured since Roosevelt and Churchill collaborated to end Fascism. I can only imagine, if we are losing the faith of conservative Brits, how we are viewed in the rest of the world.

By Will Friedman in Commentary, Foreign Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack | Email this post

January 09, 2005

The Marketplace of Ideas

Nobody’s perfect: that’s why dictatorships fail.  A leader may be extraordinarily charismatic or remarkably ruthless – but no one has the breadth of ability, let alone the time, to successfully lead a nation by himself.

The inevitable result of dictatorial hubris is widespread death. Stalin, disastrously, fancied himself a military leader, causing the needless deaths of millions of his own soldiers.  Worse, his catastrophically naïve ideas on property redistribution and his paranoid, totalitarian policies killed millions more – so many, in fact that the total number is disputed.  Kim Jung Il, to give another example, is hardly a polymath; he can’t even keep his people fed.  And given the events of the past few years, I won’t bother to rehearse the failings of the recently deposed Iraq despot – we learned them by rote.

By sharp contrast, democracy provides the widest prosperity and the least repression for its practitioners because every conceivable idea is permitted to compete for primacy, through free speech, free press, and free assembly.  In theory at least, the best ideas rise to the top and the weakest are abandoned, according to criteria chosen by the majority of voters.  Of course, people are still vulnerable to sophistry and propaganda; as British humorist Alan Coren said, “Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they've told you what it is you want to hear.” And, unfortunately, the press is often less than fair and balanced, particularly during wartime. And a tyrannous majority can impinge the rights of minorities.  And voting can be rigged or flawed.  But despite all these drawbacks, because – and primarily because – it fosters a relatively open marketplace of ideas, democracy remains, as Churchill famously put it, "the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

Recognizing the importance of the competition of ideas that democracy allows, many presidents surround themselves with independent thinkers who challenge them and each other. They also maximize the number of information sources available to them.  John F. Kennedy assembled a “best and brightest” cabinet, which included liberals and moderate conservatives alike. Richard Nixon, according to Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, realized that the volume of data available to him was overwhelming, yet the complexity of the decisions he faced required him to master it. He therefore created the modern Office of Management and Budget and directed it to write concise briefs outlining the spectrum of views on given issues. Bill Clinton was known to call experts around the country, at all times of day or night, to develop as informed an opinion as possible.

As we have seen, the short term political drawback of open-mindedness is that it leaves the leader open to charges of wish-washiness or flip-floppery.  The leader who is not following a rigid ideology, but rather weighing known facts and potential consequences, cannot know, a priori, the solution to every problem.  He may also change his mind about the right approach as he gathers new information.

But in the long term, just as an athlete who refuses to submit to the rigors of competition is almost certainly a poor performer, a leader who refuses to participate in the marketplace of ideas – who brooks no dissent from the party line; who is incurious about the world around him – will make a lot of bad decisions.

No amount of sophistry or denial will cover up the consequences.  You can cut taxes come hell or high water, but the deficits will keep piling up, the currency will fall, and interest rates will rise. You can claim that a rushed, sparsely supported invasion of Iraq will make Americans safer, but when our armed forces are too tied up to tackle real threats, dictators are emboldened to develop real weapons of mass destruction.  And you can ignore the cost of privatizing Social Security, but someone will have to pay the bill.

Al Smith, the progressive presidential candidate who was defeated by Hebert Hoover, said that “all the ills of democracy can be cured by more democracy.” Certainly these days we could use more free press, free speech, and free assembly – and a broader debate within our government about the right solutions for our country.  If we don’t get that from the current administration, it is worth remembering that Hoover’s ideologically pure but effectively bankrupt ideas (e.g., regulation is always bad, social programs are always bad, unrestrained big business is always good) failed so demonstrably that they paved the way for the Roosevelt era of peace and prosperity. Thus, despite the government having shielded its eyes and ears from dissent to the detriment of the country, democracy indeed provided the cure.  It will do so again.
© Copyright 2004 Will Friedman

By Will Friedman in Commentary, Politics | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack | Email this post

December 30, 2004

The End of the Café?

The first Starbucks opened in France one year ago, across from the Opéra Garnier. Some people feared that this most recent manifestation of mondialisation would mean the death of the Paris café tradition. (Editorialists at the American Enterprise Institute, on the other hand, chuckled.)

Starbucks stepped carefully into the country, perhaps recognizing the sensitivity of the undertaking. The storefront on the Avenue de l’Opéra, adjacent to their business headquarters, served as a lone test case for several months.  The site was carefully chosen, and could be considered evidence that Starbuck’s primary business is not coffee, but real estate – it’s one of the most chic locations in Paris. The milieu gave the first Starbucks a cachet which the company has not striven for in the United States.

Yet a test site was a good idea. In a nation where the waiter can tell by the time of day what kind of coffee to serve, people needed instruction before they could order double skinny soy Lattes. Thus the six part informational poster, in gentle fonts, above the counter, and the folded paper menus with large pictures of each major drink, labeled with textbook-like callouts which elaborate the possibilities in glossy detail.

After initial success at Opéra, Starbucks added three others stores in key locations, while continuing to tweak. High-end pear juice was replaced by “Smoothie Smiley,” which frazzled mothers who rate Starbucks as a godsend must appreciate. Unfortunate British-style sandwiches also appeared, but shared display case real estate with croques monsieur and even pavé brioché aux rillettes de fois gras. Overreaching, the management even invited customers to sample the Grand Cru Starbucks – not wine of course, but ground coffee beans.

Starbucks has now expanded to nearly 10 Parisian locations, and while as yet there are no dueling Starbucks on either side of the same street (like Pioneer Square in Seattle or Oxford Street in London), it seems to be off to strong start. The puffy chairs are all taken, and it is not only tourists who are latte-sippers – on a recent visit, more than three-quarters of the patrons were speaking French. The crowd is pretty young; as with McDonalds, teenagers find it cool to hang out in an American chain.

So far at least, the traditional cafés have not suffered. Guidebook favorite Les Deux Magots, despite featuring what is arguably the worst service of any eatery anywhere, is among the plentitude of cafés within a short distance of Starbucks Odéon which continue to do brisk business. And Chez Starbucks does not have a monopoly on WiFi Internet access – some traditional cafés have added it more quickly, more reliably, and for free.

Despite a largely positive start, it’s clear that in France there is a love/hate relationship with Starbucks, as with many things American. After I ordered my coffee, I commented to the barista that the number Starbucks seemed to be growing quickly in Paris. His response: “Yes…it’s becoming worse and worse – oops, I mean, there are more and more!”
© Copyright 2004 Will Friedman

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